In my mind we will always be eighteen.
We were standing in the dark, trying and failing to get out of the rain under the eaves of a Marcos-type prefab building, a few meters down the road from where we had been told to report for overnight indoctrination. We had been ordered to come in as a group, supposedly to build unity and esprit de corps in our batch. I don’t think they called it team building or bonding yet back in the 1970’s. I suspect they didn’t want us to arrive individually because an early bird or a latecomer might be singled out for special hazing. Our seniors were kind to us in that way. But they also required us to know the full names of all our batchmates. If one of us didn’t know the middle name of one other guy, we were warned, we would all be hazed. In other words, the hazing was inevitable, but we tried to get to know each other anyway in those few minutes in the dark.
“Carlos Ouano Diola,” mumbled the one with big ears. What?! The panic inside me was growing with each unpronounceable new name. Carlos O-what?? I asked him to spell it out but I couldn’t concentrate enough to get all the vowels straight. He told me it was a well-known name in Cebu, which meant absolutely nothing to me, having spent my entire life in Laguna where family names were straightforward words with alternating vowels and consonants like Maligaya, Manalo and Malabanan.
The next guy’s name was easy. “David Reyes Reyes,” he said. His parents might have been related, thus explaining his abnormally thick legs.
“Jose Olegario Sala.” Later he would add Maria and Stan and Dov to his name. I always thought he just invented his names. After all everybody called him Kulas.
“Elgar Cruz.” No Middle Initial. He was interrogated about that, and he said he was Chinese and the Chinese don’t have middle names. Fine by me. Easier to remember.
It was as diverse a group as any you might find in the University. Like the chairs in the Arts and Sciences classrooms, no two were alike. There was the La Sallista Rizal scout who had the easy, confident camaraderie of privilege. He and his buddies came with sleeping bags whereas the rest of us barely had a spare undershirt. There were two guys who had graduated from the Philippine Science High School, but no one would ever think of them as nerds. One was a handsome jock. The other, a genius. Most came from the provinces, however. Domingo Egon Quintos Cayosa came from Pamplona, Cagayan which, we would learn, is even further north than Aparri. There were kids from Bicol and from various islands in the Visayas. And the biggest, toughest, man of a few words, Victor Stephen Ortega Rosete was from South Cotabato.
We wouldn’t learn all these things in that first night. It would take four years of constant, enforced togetherness through weekdays and weekends, summers and sem breaks, often to the exclusion of other friends and even relatives; but somewhere along the way we became fraternity brothers.
In the words of one of those we listened to carefully, we learned “to stand shoulder to shoulder even when we did not see eye to eye.” We could be rivals for the favor of the same young woman, showing up at the same time at her doorstep like bulls about to lock horns; but always, without hesitation, we were prepared to put our brotherhood before any girl and often even to choose fraternity over family. When the entire world seemed to condemn us, one of us could stand up before our assembled foes and recklessly flip them the bird and know that we had his back. We shared intense common experiences that led us to blaze paths of individual achievement. I have been asked in the ensuing years to explain, even justify, all this. I don’t really have an answer. Except maybe to quote one of our mentors: In the first two years, we separate the men from the boys. Then in the next two years, we separate the men from the fools; and after four years, the fools graduate.
But then we went on with our lives, our time in the fraternity continuing and ending at the same time. We were still brods but we were also alumni, and with the completion of our years on campus, we scattered to pursue careers and find our own places in the world. How many left the country? We found soulmates, too, and even though brods had cars with motors running outside the church just in case, we chose to push through with our weddings. We built new families with wives and children whose names we never gave each other to memorize. Thus, we grew apart.
Fully forty years down the road from the dark, rainy night, our memories are fading. The stories we tell each other at reunions become less distinct, less complete and less funny with each re-telling because we’ve heard them all before or because having lived them we don’t need to hear them again. Sitting cross-legged in a circle drinking gin from a single glass. Waking up with pentel-penned teeth. Exploring the streets off Roxas Boulevard packed into a blue Tamaraw. Maybe, just maybe, we’d really much rather forget these stories.
And when someone does set a get-together, we’re never complete anyway. The doctor who never pays is attending another conference, possibly for the free meal. A couple of big shot business execs are traveling again. The lawyer responds only to texts from the boss we know only by his initials. The general is, ah, we don’t say funny things about army generals. Plus, somebody always has to ask why the gathering is set for a Saturday. Why not Friday? If it’s on a Friday, why not Saturday? Why dinner? Can’t it be lunch? Isn’t Quezon City too far for some of us? Isn’t Makati too far for the others? Do we bring our wives?? The psychic cost of maintaining the relationship has become too high.
At this point, my wife, my soulmate, my master and commander literally slaps me and says, “Life is short.”
I do want to attend the reunions, renew old ties and reaffirm the unbreakable bonds. I just might. But I might not. Because what I really, truly want to do is be 18 again, and the absolute impossibility of that happening is to me increasingly depressing.